Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Evidential Value of Miracle Reports

I will discuss only the evidential value of miracle reports. I will say nothing of direct experience of a putative miracle. The epistemological problems that attend to the first are not identical to those that attend to the second.

By "miracle", I mean an event whose occurrence could not be been brought about purely natural causes but must instead have had a supernatural cause. Miracles are more than nature by itself can muster. They require a cause that is outside nature. In a miraculous event, the supernatural as it were breaks into the natural order and accomplishes more than the natural could have done unaided.

Moreover, in what follows I mean to limit myself to those miracle reports that assign God - the infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise creator and redeemer of the world - as the cause.

Argument. So let us say that word has come to us of a miracle. (I find that I quickly tire as I write "putative miracle" again and again. So from here on understand that by "miracle" I mean "putative miracle".) The miracle occurred in a land far away, at a time far in the past. It is, let us say, a report of a resurrection. We have multiple sources for the report, but we have no reason to suppose that they are independent. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren't. Moreover, our sources wrote their accounts no earlier than 40 years after the event they recount, and in the time between occurrence and first written record, the memory of the event was kept alive in speech and speech alone. (This, I take it, closely parallels the miracle reports in the New Testament.) Now let us say that we wish to ascertain whether the miracle did really occur. We cannot of course simply accept the reports at face value. We know all too well that many, many miracle reports are spurious - what they say happened in fact did not happen. Thus we must weigh the evidence in favor of their truth and the evidence against, and when we do we must take great care that we not claim to know more than we do. A very real possibility is that we will find ourselves unable to render a judgment about the likelihood that the reports are true.

Now, as we attempt to ascertain whether the miracle reports are true, we must ask ourselves three questions:

I. What is the probability that the accounts have not been embellished or plain made up?

II. Given that the accounts are tolerably accurate, what is the probability that there exists a natural but perhaps undiscovered cause of the event reported?

III. Given that there exists a supernatural cause of the event reported, what is the probability that that supernatural cause is God?

As should be obvious, only if the probabilities of I, II are low and the probability of III high do we have good reason to suppose that God lies at the root of the miracle.

What is the probability of I for our miracle report? I find it impossible to answer. We have no insight into that oral tradition that first transmitted the report. Moreover, we all have experience with the susceptibility of such reports to transmute over time and thus come to contain some measure, whether great or small, of error. I recently came across a wonderful example of this. In Lafayette, IN (my present home) there is a house where the Christmas tree is never take down. It's readily visible from a street near down-town, and most if not all long-time residents of Lafayette have seen it. Soon after my arrival to Lafayette, I was told this story about it: In the late 60s, a young left for the Vietnam war. It was Christmas when he left, and his parents promised him that they wouldn't take the tree down until he came home. But he was killed, and true to their word his parents never took the tree down. Now, as a matter of fact, this story is false. Indeed it's not even close to the truth. The local paper - the Lafayette Journal and Courier - recently carried a little piece that dispelled the near-ubiquitous myth. In fact, the family simply likes their Christmas tree and decided years ago that they'd like to enjoy it year-round. The true story isn't as good a story as the false one, and perhaps this explains why the false one had such currency. But that point to the side, we have here an example of the sort of invention that often occurs in the oral transmission of stories to do with extraordinary events (and this event isn't even that extraordinary). Human beings seem quite prone to invention, and they seem quite credulous when presented when the invention of others.

Now, what is the probability that our miracle report is not the product of human imagination? Perhaps it isn't, but how are we to know? If we knew that humans exercised extreme epistemological caution about such things - if we knew, that is, that they were careful never to invent and careful never to embellish - we might conclude that they story is likely veridical. But we don't know this; and, it seems to me, we don't know what probability to assign to I.

Let us turn to II. I have little to say about it. Indeed I have but one point to make. Our knowledge of nature is far from complete; and for all we know, science might well undergo radical revolution in the future. Thus it seems to me that we have little reason to suppose that, when presented with an event which cannot as yet be explained naturalistically, there likely is no naturalistic explanation. Let me put the point this way. Let us say that we've witnessed an event which seems unexplainable naturalistically - say the resurrection of a man three-days dead. There are two sorts of explanation open to us: (i) natural but as-of-yet undiscovered, and (ii) supernatural. We may rule out i only if we have good reason to think it likely that our grasp of the laws that govern natural processes is complete, or near-complete. But we don't possess that good reason. (We at present don't even have a coherent physics. We use General Relativity for a certain class of entity, and Quantum Dynamics for another; and at present no one knows how they are to be integrated.) Moreover, we ought to admit a very real possibility that the science of today will be discarded for a new, radically different science - it's happened before; and the putative miracle might be easily explained naturalistically on the new science.

Thus at present we have no good reason to suppose that ii must be embraced and i rejected. If we reject i and embrace ii, it's high speculation indeed.

Let us turn to III. Here I admit almost total ignorance. Christianity tells me of a host of supernatural entities - God, angles, and devils - all capable of intervention in the natural world. Other religions increase that host many times over. At present, I believe in one of these entities. So you tell me how I'm supposed to decide which was responsible for this or that miracle. Perhaps you will reply that God identifies Himself as the author of certain miracles. I'm unimpressed, for in my present state of ignorance it seems quite possible that there is another supernatural entity which misidentifies itself as God. I have no knowledge of any supernatural entity, and so for all I know, there might be one or many who take themselves to have very good reason to make we humans believe falsely that they are God.

Conclusion. Almost certainly we have insufficient reason to accept the Gospel miracle accounts. Sub-conclusion. Even if we were to have good reason to assign I a low probability, still there are high hurdles that belief in miracles must clear. One is our II above, a second is our III; and for one in my epistemological situation - one who finds himself with little in the way of belief in the supernatural - at present they simply cannot be cleared.

Reflection. So then, I'm doubtful that miracle accounts can get religious faith off the ground. Wherever religious faith might begin, it cannot begin there. Thus I reject an all-to-common apologetic use of miracle accounts on which they are judged sufficient to give rise to faith where there was none before. But this does not mean that I think them useless to faith. On the contrary, I find it not at all improbable that they ought to find a place in a life in which the seed of faith has already been planted. They nurture that faith. They lead it to grow. But they do not plant it. This of course leaves us with the question of how faith is planted. I'll take up this question in later posts. (This is closely related to the question of the foundation of the Christian faith, discussed here, and as before I put that question off for now.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Whole Bible Christianity

I often hear the remark that if a Christian rejects even one little bit of the Bible, she must reject it all. (Call this claim "WBC", for "Whole Bible Christianity".) This seems a belief common to those of a fundamentalist turn of mind. I wish now to consider what might be said both for and against this belief.

Note: WBC claims only that the Christian is obligated to believe that the whole of the Bible is true. It says nothing about the epistemological obligations of non-Christians. Thus for all the WBC says, it might yet be quite right for the non-Christian to, say, reject the Genesis account of creation but accept Christ's claim that the foundation of the moral law lies in the twin claims to love God and neighbor as self.

Second note: I assume throughout that Biblical interpretation is a straightforward matter, and that all intelligent, honest Bible scholars agree about its interpretation. Elsewhere (here and here) I argue that this assumption must be false. But my intent is not to rehash those arguments. Instead it is to argue that the fundamentalist take on Scripture is deeply misguided in a second, distinct way.

What argument might be offered in WBC's favor? Why might it be wrong for the Christian to accept some but not all of what the Bible claims? I know of two responses.

Response I

If after critical examination the Christian finds that some part of the Bible, no matter how small, must be rejected, the possibility exists that critical examination of the Bible will reveal that much of it must be rejected. But if the Christian admits the possibility that much of its must be rejected, she no longer has a basis for her Christian faith. Indeed, the very foundation of Christianity lies in a belief in Scripture's inerrancy, and thus if one admits the possibility of widespread Biblical error, one has shown that foundation unable to bear the weight of the Christian world-view.

Response II

The very act of critical examination of Scripture - examination of the sort that might lead one to reject some or all of it - presupposes that one is able to set oneself up as a judge of the word of God. But this of course is absurd. We humans are finite and are prone to error. We cannot possibly set ourselves up as judges of the word of God. Rather we must accept it as truth and, as best as we are able, let it guide our lives.

Of these two responses, I find the first much more powerful and subtle than the second. I'll dispense with the second quickly and then turn to the first. Response II assumes that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God and thus that we know that it is through-and-through without error. Now of course if we knew that this was so, then we would have to do as Response II tells us - we must have to simply accept the Bible and follow its dictates as best we can. But I take it that the Christian who rejects WBC does not believe that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God. Thus Response II seems to beg the question at hand. It seems to presuppose rather than prove WBC.

Now for Response I. It would have us adopt the view that the foundation of the Christian faith lies in an unshakable conviction in the inerrancy of Scripture. What follows is the quick and dirty refutation of this view. (If you're dissatisfied, don't despair. I'll return to the issue in later posts.)

The belief that Scripture is inerrant, if rational, must be grounded in evidence of its inerrancy; and without that evidence, the belief is rendered irrational. Where might one look for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy? If one looks only to Scripture, one cannot possible prove that Scripture is inerrant. For to look to Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy is to assume that it is inerrant, and if one assumes inerrancy, one cannot possibly at the same time prove inerrancy. Thus one must look outside Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy But if so, belief in Scriptural inerrancy cannot be a bedrock belief. Rather, there must lie below it another belief (or set of beliefs) upon which the belief in Biblical inerrancy rests. The conclusion, of course, is that belief in Biblical inerrancy cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith. It may be part of that faith, but it does not lie at the bottom of it.

This little argument seems to me absolutely beyond reproach. Each premise is quite obviously true, and together they quite obviously imply the conclusion. We are thus forced to conclude that we must look elsewhere than Biblical inerrancy for the foundation of the Christian faith. I do not here wish to pursue the issue of the foundation of the Christian faith. Instead I wish only to consider WBC. We've rejected two attempts to prove WBC. Now let us consider what might be said against WBC.

We said that the belief in Biblical inerrancy, if justified, must be grounded in some prior belief. Let us pursue the point - we will find in it decisive reason to reject WBC. The belief (or set of beliefs) from which the consequent belief in Biblical inerrancy is to be derived serve as a test of Biblical truth. That belief (or set of beliefs) is brought to bear upon Scripture, and by means of it were are able to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false. Call that belief (or set of beliefs) that allow us to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false "ITB" for "Inerrancy Test Belief". (What lies within ITB? Moral belief, I'd reckon, together with geographical, scientific, historic, sociological, psychological, etc. ITB consists of just those beliefs bear upon the truth of Scripture but are held independently of Scripture.)

Here I wish to ask a certain, pointed question. (This question is the heart of the post.) Why suppose it impossible for the whole of Scripture to fail the test of ITB if any part passes it? I know of no reason. Think for a moment of how ITB is actually put to use in a test of Scriptural truth. It must be put to use passage by passage, assertion by assertion. Indeed it cannot be so used that the whole of Scripture is tested all at once, for the only sense one can make of the claim that the whole of Scripture has been tested is that the passages that together compose it have been tested separately.

The proper unit of the test of Scriptural truth is thus the passage. It cannot be the whole of Scripture. With this, we have our conclusion. As the test proceeds - as we consider now one passage now another - we have absolutely no reason to hold that if some passage is rejected as false, all must be rejected as false. (Indeed it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, this is precisely what happens. The world was not created in six days, but we are to love both God and the neighbor as the self.) Moreover, the fact that we reject one passage but accept another in no way serves to undermine the justification we have for the one we accept. The test of ITB - no matter the beliefs that comprise that set - can show one passage absolutely certain but later show another certainly false.

(I expect the fundamentalist to here complain that the Bible is wholly true for it is through-and-through the word of God. I have nowhere disputed this point. Instead I've said two things about it: (i) it likely begs the question against those who reject WBC, and (ii) it cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith but must rather seek support elsewhere; and as one searches for that support and brings it to bear upon the Bible, one has absolutely no right to assume at the outset that all passages will be vindicated if any are.)

Perhaps an episode from the early 19th century will drive the point home. I quote from Wikipedia:

A number of books which are part of the Greek Septuagint but are not found in the Hebrew Bible are often referred to as deuterocanonical books by Roman Catholics referring to a later secondary (i.e. deutero) canonisation. These books are not deuterocanonical for Orthodox Churches because they were always canonical for them. Most Protestants term these books as apocrypha. Evangelicals and those of the Modern Protestant traditions do not accept the deuterocanonical books as canonical, although Protestant Bibles included them until around the 1820s. However the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches include these books as part of their Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven such books (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch), as well as some passages in Esther and Daniel. Various Orthodox Churches include a few others, typically 3 Maccabees, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, Odes, Psalms of Solomon, and occasionally 4 Maccabees.

Why were these books excluded from Protestant Bibles? The judgment was rendered that they were not inspired and so not authoritative. An series of arguments for their non-authoritativeness is found here. The arguments rely upon many things: principles from logic to do with contradiction and consistency, moral principles, the sciences of geography, psychology, physics, etc. Note then that the process of Scriptural confirmation that I described above is at work in the rejection of the deuterocanonical books. Principles that we know independently of Scripture are brought to bear upon it passage by passage, assertion by assertion; and once this process is done, some but not all of the Bible is rejected as non-inspired and non-authoritative. So then it seems that the very process which lead to the creation of the Protestant Bible is one that Protestant fundamentalists (at least those who accept WBC, and I'd guess that this is the great majority of them) now refuse to apply any further. This is blatant inconsistency.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Apology, and a Little Story

I apologize to those brave few who check in on The Philosophical Midwife now and again. I've had a busy semester and haven't had the time or "brain juice" to post. (Einstein talked of "mental grease". I prefer "brain juice".)

I've decided to change my career. Before I was a moderately successful philosopher. Now I hope to become a moderately successful mathematics teacher. Before I began work in philosophy, my studies were devoted to mathematics, and to it I now return. But I hope to continue, now and again, to think and write about philosophy and religion.

A few months ago, as I sat for mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, I had what for me was an extraordinary experience. It seemed to me that I saw Christ walk down an aisle. I felt that I would succumb to the vision, that I would loose myself in it, and out of fear I pulled back. When I did, the vision ended.

My wife asked me after mass if I felt that I had imagined him. I replied that it did not seem to me that I had. Rather I had the sense that the vision came to me from without. This of course does not prove that it did come from without, but all that I wish to do is report how it seemed to me at the time.

The experience was not purely perceptual in nature. It was cognitive as well. As I've noted before, one of the foundational tenets of Christianity is that at present the world is not as it should be. Indeed for the Christian we are not now as we should be. Moreover, Christianity projects a future in which all that is not right will be made right. As I sat for mass, I took the few minutes of peace it afforded to reflect upon this Christian tenet. I began to wonder what precisely the world was like before the Fall, and what it would be like after the rift between God and man opened by the Fall was healed. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the Fall, as it were, pulled the entirety of the world through a Carrollian mirror. Perhaps it remade the world, from its constituent fundamental particles and the laws that govern them through every level of matter that supervenes upon them, and left it in a state of deep imperfection. (I take it that this view contradicts what most hold. Most hold that the Fall in some way infected humanity but that it left most of the rest of creation intact. On the common view, the nonhuman world - at least insofar as it has not suffered the consequences of human sin - is as God designed it. On the contrary, on the view that I've described, nothing is now as God designed it - not humans, not animals, not the Earth, not the solar system, not the galaxy, not the universe.)

I know that this is but the barest sketch of a view. I don't mean to develop it here. Instead all that I mean to say is that this is what occupied my thoughts when the vision of Christ began. Indeed that vision served to strengthen my conviction that this view of the Fall is true. I do not know how or why it did so, but it did.

These thoughts about the Fall did not exhaust the cognitive aspect of my experience. Concomitant with them was a deep sense of just how utterly foreign was this man who walked down the aisle. It was almost as if the culture of his time and place hung about him as a nimbus. I thought to myself that if this man were to walk among us, were to talk with us, we would think him wholly foreign. We would not understand what he did. We would be offended by what he did.

Last I was struck by the sheer physicality of the man. In my vision it seemed to me not that he was a spirit who appeared in bodily form. Rather he was a man as surely as am I.

I find that at this point words fail me. The vision was richer than I am now able to express. Perhaps I will return to it in a later post.

I have little idea of the significance of the vision, and its effects seem to have largely worn off. I am as I was before the vision. But I do retain a fear of mass. I'm afraid that the vision will take hold of me again and that, when it does, I won't be able to put a stop to it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Religion in the Public Sphere

There's been much uproar lately about purported attempts by both Left and Right to shape public policy in an idiosyncratic and undemocratic way. The Right says this about what they call 'activist' judges. The left says this about the religious Right and their attempt to outlaw abortion and stem cell research.

Of course examples could be multiplied, but I'll not take the time to do so. My intent is not to weigh in on this or that issue but rather to say something about the place of religious belief in the public sphere. Some say that when one enters into public debate about public policy, one must leave one's religious beliefs behind. (I've heard this said both by the Right and the Left, but the charge seems more often to originate from the Left.) Others says that religious belief must be the prime if not the sole source of one's political views.

These two opinions about the place of religion in the public sphere are the extremes, and is so often the case with extremes, both must be rejected. The secular extreme requires the impossible. Religious folk can't simply shed their religious beliefs when they enter into political debate. The religious beliefs of religious folk penetrate to the very core of their being. They can no more shed them than they can shed their skin.

But this is not reason to embrace the religious extreme. Much that religious folk here in the U.S. believe should not be written into law. Christians hold that they must attend church, and yet I expect all will agree that church attendance should not be mandated by the law. (Christians are often adamant about this and other related matters. The expression of belief, they say, must be free.)

Thus in political debate we cannot ask religious folk to pretend that they are not religious. But we cannot allow them to simply impose their religious views upon others. What then are we to do? What is the place of religion in the public sphere?

My suggestion is this. It is quite legitimate to bring one's religious beliefs to bear in political debate, but when one does so, one must search for arguments that do not presuppose membership in one or another sect. Rather one's reasons must be, insofar as this is possible, universal in the sense that they have the potential to sway all who hear. If one has no universal reasons to give, one must no longer attempt to write one's views into policy. Consider the example of abortion. For many, their opposition to abortion has its foundation in their religious world-view. Ought opposition to abortion that has a religious source have a place in political debate? Of course it ought. (We should say as well that inevitably it will.) But how ought opposition to abortion be justified in political debate? Is it legitimate for religious folk to say that it ought to be outlawed because it's contrary to God's will as revealed in Scripture? It most certainly is not, for that justification appeals only to a certain sect and its idiosyncratic views. A legitimate justification is one that makes appeal to some universal moral principle on which all can be expected to agree. Perhaps that principle is that it's wrong for anyone anywhere to intentionally kill an innocent human being. But no matter what we think about this matter (and even if we think that abortion should not be illegal) still we must say that in the public sphere, reasons must be universal.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Thank you, Google

Google has just released (in beta, of course) a set of upgrades to its blogger service. I can now begin to organize my posts by theme. Take a look to the right.

The list will continue to grow as time goes on.

What a G-send ('G' for Google, not 'God').

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A New Take on Inerrancy

Let us begin our discussion with a certain common argument for Biblical inerrancy. It is this:

1. If we are Christians, we must think that the Bible is not merely one authority among others but is rather the supreme authority in all matters to do with our salvation.
2. If it is to be such a supreme authority, it must command our absolute trust. A book that we cannot trust absolutely cannot be a book that is supremely authoritative.
3. If there were any error within the Bible, it is possible that, for any passage on which we fix our attention, it too is in error. Error in one place entails the possibility of error anywhere.
4. But a book that might be in error wherever we look is not a book that we can trust absolutely.
5. Thus a book that contains any error is one that we cannot trust absolutely. (From the conjunction of 3 and 4)
6. Thus a book that contains any error is not supremely authoritative. (From the conjunction of 5 and 2)
7. Thus Christians must hold that the Bible is free from error. (From the conjunction of 6 and 1)

If you've followed my work here at all, you know that I reject the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It is indefensible for a variety of reasons. But I do have a bit of respect for the little argument above. It does not obviously fail. Thus the Christian seems caught between the Scylla of inerrancy and the Charybdis of an abandoned faith. Inerrancy is indefensible, but reject it and it seems that you must reject your faith.

In what follows, I intend to show the Christian how to steer a safe path between these two hazards.

Before I gave the doctrine of inerrancy only a very cursory definition. I seem to recall that I said some such thing as this: when we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that, when interpreted properly throughout, it is on that proper interpretation wholly true. I said as well that we must distinguish the debate about Scripture's inerrancy from debates about whether to interpret this or that passage literally or non-literally. Biblical inerrancy is not Biblical literalism; the former concerns truth, and the latter proper manner of interpretation. (For what it's worth, it seems obvious that certain passages are meant to be given a non-literal interpretation. The parables of Jesus come immediately to mind.)

There is a more subtle kind of inerrancy that might be attributed to Scripture, one that differs from the kind defined above. To build to a definition, let us begin with the question, What is the purpose of Scripture? Why was it written? I give the one answer possible for a Christian. Scripture was written so as to bring humans into the right relation with God. Scripture is not for God - God has no need of books, indeed he has need of nothing at all. Scripture is for us. But why do we need it? We need it because we fell, because we rebelled against God and thus severed that relation in which we had stood to him. God took mercy upon us and provided for us a way back to right relation with him. Scripture is the account of our fall and the progress of God's plan for our reconciliation with him. Scripture is our guide to reconciliation.

This is the primary purpose of Scripture. This is what it is for, what it is to do. It is our guide to reconciliation, to salvation.

Let us then fashion a sense of 'inerrancy' appropriate to Scripture's primary purpose. What is this new sense of 'inerrancy'? (I hope that you'll forgive a bit of technical jargon - I was trained as an analytic philosopher. The 'df' below means that I intend to offer a definition of the term italicized on the left.)

Scripture is inerrant =df All said within Scripture served, and continues to serve, as a perfect guide to our reconciliation with God.

Call this sort of inerrancy 'perfect guide inerrancy' (PG inerrancy for short). Call the first, the sort defined at the start, 'perfect truth inerrancy' (PT inerrancy for short).

What do we mean by 'perfect' in the definition of PG inerrancy? We mean at least three things. (i) We mean that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about how to reconcile ourselves to God. (ii) We also mean that, in its primary purpose, the purpose of reconciliation, the Bible will never lead us astray. It will, if followed, always help us along on the path to reconciliation. (iii) Finally, we mean that the Bible's plan of reconciliation is optimal. There could be no better.

In what follows, I will to probe the relation of PG to PT inerrancy. In the course of this, we'll have our explanation of why PG is preferable to PT inerrancy. Let us first say that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. Consider the example of the creation story within Genesis. It is, if interpreted is the most natural way, the way that it was first interpreted, simply false. The world was not created in six days. Thus PT inerrancy is untenable. But we need not conclude that PG inerrancy is untenable. For perhaps the story, though false if interpreted in the most natural way, was yet an approximation to the truth who desired effect could not have been achieved by the exact truth. Let me explain.

First let us begin with 'approximation to the truth'. What does it mean? We must say first that if a proposition approximates to the truth, it is, in all strictness, false. But though it is strictly false, it is yet, in some significant respect, nearby to the truth. It is, if you like, a step on the path to strict truth. Moreover, it is in the usual case a useful falsehood, and its usefulness lies in its proximity to the truth. Perhaps an example will help. Much of what's said in physics is only approximately true. For instance, students in introductory physics courses are told that the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8 m/s2. (The usual name for this value is 'g'.) This is at best an approximate truth. g differs from place to place, and the value of 9.8 is at best an approximation of a more precise value. Thus in all strictness the proposition:

g = 9.8 m/s2

is false. But it is very nearby the truth. It is, since an approximation to the truth, a step on the path to strict truth. If we wished for a bit more precision, we would say not 9.8 but rather 9.82. 9.8 is a quite natural approximation to the more precise 9.82. It is 9.82 rounded to the nearest 1/10th. It is thus a natural step on the path to strict truth.

But why we would make do with an approximate truth when we might have had an exact one? Why tell the students something we know is, in all strictness, false? Let us answer first for the case of g. After we'll return to the example of the Genesis account of creation. For the purposes of the simple experiments of the introductory physics classroom, the value of 9.8 works just fine. Given the students inability to make precise measurements (an inability that arises primarily from the nature of the equipment they use), a value of 9.8 is all the precision they'll need. Here as elsewhere, the usefulness of an approximation explains why it is made.

In the case of the Genesis account of creation, we must say something a bit different about the need for approximation. Here the need is not experimental in origin. Rather it is a need born at once of ignorance and of evil. The evil in the human heart explains the need for an account of man's creation and of his fall from right relation with God. Human ignorance explains the need for an approximation to the truth. I'll explain each in turn. (i) We are evil and have been since the fall. But if we are to reconcile ourselves to God and thus put our evil ways behind us, we must know both that we are evil and the nature of right relation to God. A sinner who does not know that he is a sinner will take no interest in reconciliation with God; a sinner who does not know what right relation to God is will know nothing of how to put matters right. But how better to make clear both our sin and the nature of right relation to God than to tell the story of our creation and of the origin of evil in the world? Thus our reconciliation to God requires that we be told the story the world's creation and of evil's origin. (ii) But the story of creation and evil's origin was first intended not for us but for a pre-scientific people who would have been utterly unable to understand the strict truth. Thus they had to be told an approximate truth, and in the Genesis story of creation and the fall we have just this. It is, if read in all strictness, false. But it is an approximation to the truth, an approximation that might have been just right for its first audience. God did create the world and all its inhabitants. God did create humans in his image. Humans did rebel against God. Now, of course the world was not created in six days, and in this respect (as in many others) the approximation is far from the truth. But it might have been the approximation that would be most likely to have the desired effect, that would most likely penetrate the hearts and minds of those pre-scientific nomads for whom it was first intended.

Now, I admit that what I've said about the effect of Genesis upon its first audience is speculative. But it is at least defensible. Thus a PG inerrantist take on Genesis is, unlike a PT inerrantist take, defensible.

We have concluded that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. One can in consistency hold the former but not the latter. Let us now ask the converse. Does PT inerrancy entail PG inerrancy? In the case of the Bible, it likely does. All Christians, and thus all PT inerrantists, hold that the Bible contains God's plan for our reconciliation with him. But if it does, and if PT inerrancy is true, then likely PG inerrancy is true as well. (I'll not give the details of the argument. It's a relatively trivial exercise, and I leave it to you.)

Let us sum up before we push on to the conclusion. We've distinguished PG from PT inerrancy. We've argued that though the second likely entails the first, the first does not entail the second. What lesson are we to draw from this? What are we to take away? Since PG inerrancy does not entail but is entailed by PT inerrancy, we must say that PG inerrancy is weaker than PT inerrancy. It requires less of Scripture than does PT inerrancy. The standard it sets for Scripture is not so high as that of PT inerrancy. As we have said, the standard of PG inerrancy is perhaps low enough that it can be met even by those portions of Scripture that are, like the Genesis creation account, simply false. But that's not all there is to recommend it. As said above, the Bible's primary purpose is practical. It tells us what we must do, how we must live. Should we not then craft a definition of inerrancy appropriate to this purpose? Should the new inerrancy not make Scripture out to be not a perfect repository of truth but a perfect guide to action?

Before I turn to objections, let me say that I've only just barely begun an PG-type interpretation of Scripture. I've only said a very little about about how such an interpretation of Genesis might be begun. There's a mountain of work left to do. But again the PG-type interpretation does at least have this virtue (a virtue not shared by PT inerrancy): it is not obviously false.

I know of two objections to this conclusion important enough to warrant comment. (i) The first begins with a claim about God's nature. God, the objection begins, is by his nature unable to utter a falsehood. But, the objection continues, Scripture is the inspired word of God and thus can contain no falsehood, not even a falsehood that approximates to the truth. Scripture, since God-breathed, must be strictly true. (ii) The second asks us to distinguish incomplete truths from approximations to truth. The former are in all strictness true, but simply fail to tell the whole story. The latter are in all strictness false. The Genesis account of creation, the objection continues, is at worst an incomplete truth. It is not an approximation to truth. The objection will thus grant that the audience for which Genesis was first intended could not comprehend the whole of the truth. But it does not infer from this that an approximation to the truth had to be substituted for the complete truth. Rather it infers only that an incomplete truth was called for. Genesis, on this objection, is strictly but incompletely true.

Perhaps we should say that the two objections are not likely to be kept separate. One who levels the first is likely to level the second as well; and one who levels the second likely does so because she holds the first. But though the two are related in this way, I'll treat them separately.

In the second post in this series, I'll take on these two objections.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Paul on Slavery

Tom Gilson, in comments in the prior post, said this:

The Ephesians passage on slavery recognized or acknowledged the fact of slavery. It does not approve or condone it. In the historical situation, those who were slaves needed moral guidance appropriate to their circumstance, which is what you find in the passage.

I think the matter important enough to warrant its own post, for I think that what Tom says is what many inerrantist would (and have) said.

Let us have the passage from Ephesians again:

6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

I believe that Tom's view falls prey to a decisive refutation. Paul does not simply recognize that slavery in fact exists. If that was all that he did, then of course nothing he said would entail that he tacitly condoned it. Rather Paul tells slaves and masters how they are to act, and this does entail that he must condone, if only tacitly, the institution of slavery. The argument is really quite simple. To make it, I'll build upon the analogy of rape. Let us say that I come to know that a certain acquaintance is a serial rapist. I might do a number of things. If a good man, I would report him. If a heartless man, I might do nothing. If an evil man, I might give him advice on how best to carry out his next rape. Indeed it seems that we have a tight relation between approval and advice. If I give you advice about how to do a thing, I thereby condone what you do; and if I think that you ought not do a thing, I ought not give you advice about how to do it.

Paul gives advice to masters and to slaves. Thus he must condone slavery, if only tacitly.

Let me drive the point home. There is simply no right way for a rapist to act, for rape is always and everywhere impermissible. Indeed the always and everywhere impermissibility of rape entails that there's no right way to rape a woman. Just so, the always and everywhere impermissibility of slavery entails that there's no right way to take or hold a slave. But Paul tells slave-owners how they are to treat their slaves and thus assumes that there's a right way to treat slaves. Thus again we must conclude that Paul condones slavery.

Wouldn't it be absurd to say some such thing as this:

Rapist, do right unto your victim. Do not kill or maim her. Do not make her shame known to men.

Of course it would. Why would it be absurd? Rape is always and everywhere an evil, and thus there's no right way to do it. Just so, slavery is always and everywhere evil and thus there's no right way to do it.

Paul was quite indisputably wrong. He was a great man, likely better than any today. But in this matter his moral vision was clouded. He should have condemned slavery instead of give out advice about how masters and slaves should treat one another.

Biblical Particularism, Biblical Liberalism

I'm hard at work on yet another post on inerrancy. I there define a novel type of inerrancy and argue that it's superior to the one I suggest it replace.

I've poked around the internet a bit for material on inerrancy. There's little that's of any use to me. (In contemporary journals and books of philosophy, almost nothing is said about it, even by evangelicals.) But I did some across this yesterday. It's from the Religious Tolerance website. Upon reflection, it says nothing that I did not already know. But what it says it says with exemplary clarity. The passage below was of particular interest to me.

Conservative and liberal Christians have very different concepts of the nature of Scripture. Thus, they tend to develop systems of Christian theology and morality which differ greatly, and are often mutually exclusive. When faced with one of the great moral questions (like abortion, the death penalty, homosexual and bisexual rights, the concept of marriage, various aspects of sexual behavior, etc.) each interprets the Bible in their own way and frequently arrive at quite different conclusions.

A common scenario is that:

  • Conservatives will tend to emphasize a few specific passages of the Bible as proofs of their position. After all, if the Bible is without error, then even a single, clear, unambiguous passage will define the correct belief.

  • Liberals will prefer to emphasize the basic message of Jesus as the basis of their stance.

For example, 150 years ago, the great moral debate of the day was whether slavery should be preserved or abolished. Those in favor of preservation quoted specific verses that condoned, organized and regulated slavery. They pointed out that Jesus, St. Paul, and others had numerous opportunities to speak on the institution of slavery but never condemned it. Abolitionists largely ignored specific passages that dealt directly with slavery, and preferred to argue on the basis of Jesus' message, and broad theological concepts. They recognized that all persons are created in the image of God, and that one should treat one's neighbor as one's self. These would seem to imply that the ownership of one person by another was a profound evil.

The slavery question dealt a severe blow to traditional beliefs about the Bible. Led by various Anabaptist denominations, Methodists, Unitarians and secularists, an increasing percentage of North Americans rejected slavery as an abhorrent practice. They began to realize that the Bible was wrong on the issue. They concluded that portions of Scripture which discussed slavery had to be ignored, and that a higher level of morality must be adopted. The authority of the Bible within Christendom was severely weakened at that time.

We do seem to have a clear and unambiguous passage. It is this:

Ephesians 6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

How could one not take away from this the conclusion that Paul thought slavery permissible? He tells slaves that they must be obedient. He does not tell them to rebel. He does not tell others to free the slave. Rather Paul tacitly gives his approval to the institution and tells us how it should be structured.

Of course many in the past have taken precisely this moral away. Ephesians 6:5-9 was the most important of the passages for pro-slavery apologetics. Now, my claim is this: if one is a Biblical inerrantist, one must take this moral away. The passage is clear and unambiguous. It endorses slavery. Thus if all the Bible says is true, slavery must be permissible.

But of course it is not, and almost all of today's Evangelicals know that it is not. On the issue of slavery, they read the Bible as does the liberal. They search for the essence of the gospel message (the essence, as Christ says, it to love God and neighbor), find that it condemns slavery (one cannot both love the neighbor and keep him as a slave), and then condemn it. But when discussion turns to homosexuality, they do precisely what was done by pro-slavery apologists. They hold up particular passages that speak of homosexuality and with them and them alone in mind issue their condemnation.

Call the one sort of interpretative strategy Biblical particularism. Call the other Biblical liberalism.

My charge is that today's Evangelicals are of two minds. One certain matters, homosexuality for example, they are inerrantists and particularists. On others, they are liberals. I suggest they get their act together and decide what they really want to be. At present, their interpretative strategy is simply incoherent.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Christ's Temptation

Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him." - Mark 1:12-13

The accounts of Christ's temptation leave me confused. Perhaps you can help me along. (I'll use the masculine, since the example that I wish to discuss is Christ.)

When we say someone was tempted, we mean one of two things. (i) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt but he felt no temptation to take it. Call this the external sense. (ii) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt and he felt the temptation to take it. Call this the internal sense.

The difference in the internal and external senses is clear. To each corresponds a sense of 'temptation'. (i) An external temptation is simply the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing that has the power to tempt others. But though this possibility exists (and I know that it exists) I feel no desire to make the thing my own. Others might well feel the temptation, but I do not. The food is in front of me, but I have no desire to eat it. The woman reclines in my bed, but I have no desire to be with her. (ii) An internal temptation, like an external one, requires the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing. But this is not all that it requires. Rather an internal temptation requires that I desire the thing. It requires the wish that I make it my own. The food is in front of me and I want to eat. The women is in my bed and I want to lie down with her.

The question that I wish to ask should come as no surprise. It is this: When Christ was tempted, was the temptation merely external or what is internal as well?

I find both unacceptable. Let us say first that the temptation was internal. If this is so, Christ desired to possess things that it was not right for him to possess. (As Christ makes clear in his responses to Satan, Satan offers him things that he ought not take.) But the desire for such a thing is a sign of moral failure. A being that desires what it ought not have is imperfect. But of course Christ suffered from no such imperfection. Thus Christ's temptation cannot have been of the internal sort.

But neither can it have been purely external. If Christ's temptation was purely external, he is profoundly unlike you and me. Indeed if it was purely external, his humanity was a sham. The temptations we feel lie at the heart of our moral lives. If Christ felt no temptation, he cannot sympathize with us. He cannot know us. He cannot be our Savior.

I need a savior who knows me in my heart of hearts. If Christ's temptations were purely external, he cannot know me.

Moreover, if Christ's temptation was purely external, his sinlessness was inevitable and thus not praiseworthy. A being that can feel no temptation is a being that cannot sin; and a being that cannot sin is one that deserves no praise when it does not sin. But surely Christ's perfection demands the highest praise; it is praiseworthy about all else.

Thus we are left with this dilemma: either Christ's temptation was internal and Christ was thus imperfect, or his temptation was purely external and thus he cannot know us and does not deserve our praise.

Do you see a way out?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Immigration: A Plea for Redescription

I'm quite surprised by the Evangelical voice in the immigration debate. Yes, I know that it is a conservative voice. Yes, I know that it is a voice that's often nationalistic. But I'm still surprised. The language they use is not the right one for a Christian.

Evangelicals talk of illegal immigration and often say of illegal immigrants that they're criminals. They say they have no respect for law.

Evangelicals talk of the need for border security. They talk of the economic drains on the U.S. economy - health care and education are the two mentioned most often. They talk of the threat of terrorism.

I don't wish to dispute the truth of any of this. Some of it seems true to me. Some false. But let's put the issue of truth to the side. Instead let's redescribe the situation and ask whether the Evangelical ought to change her views if she adopts this redescription.

Let us say that the great majority of illegal immigrants are Christian. Let us say that they come from poverty, and that their sole reason to enter the U.S. is to make a better life for themselves and their families. Let us say that they work very hard. Let us say that they love their families deeply - indeed that their culture seems to value family greater than our own.

What is the Evangelical to say? I think it obvious. Illegal immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They live out the Christian ideal of love of family and of God. They are, like all national heroes here in the U.S., risk takers who sacrifice for the sake of those they love.

Evangelical, I say this to you: if you really do believe what you say you believe, you must change how you speak - and how you think - of illegal immigrants. In Christ, there is no nation, there is no race. Rather there is only humanity. Treat the illegal immigrants with the respect their humanity demands. Recognize in them their great virtues. Know that they're precisely the sort of people you wish to live and work here in the U.S.

If you do not change, you make those around you suspect that you are racist. You give lie to your proclamation of your faith. You make your faith seem like a cover for your racism.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Divine Simplicity

I still do a bit of philosophical work. A few months ago, I came across this piece. Its authors are Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey Brower. Among its topics is divine simplicity. Much in the paper is good, but the discussion of divine simplicity is deeply flawed. I explain why here.

What is the doctrine of divine simplicity? It is that God is simple in all ways that a being can be simple. It is that within his being, God displays absolutely no multiplicity of any kind. On this doctrine, God has no temporal parts and he has no spatial parts. On this doctrine, he exemplifies no property, for if a thing exemplifies a property, we find within it both that property and the relation of exemplification.

The doctrine of divine simplicity has many defenders. Among them are Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. As one might expect given that men of such philosophical acumen are among its defenders, its allure is undeniable. For if God in some way divides his being up into parts, it seems that those parts are more basic than is he. If God divides his being up into parts, he must depend upon those parts for his existence, for in general a thing, if composite, depends for its existence upon the existence of its parts.

But we simply cannot say such things of God. Nothing is more basic than is he. He depends upon nothing for his existence. Thus God has no parts of any kind. He has no temporal parts. He has no spatial parts. He exemplifies no property.

I'll leave you with a set of objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Though I do feel its allure, I do not know what to say in response to them.

1. The Christian God is triune. He unites with his being three persons. But even if this does not imply a multiplicity of distinct Gods, does it not imply a multiplicity of distinct persons? Does it then not imply that there is a kind of plurality within God's being?

2. God is omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. But does this not mean that he exemplifies three distinct properties? Thus does it not mean that God's being evinces plurality? Even if we could somehow prove that we have here not three properties but one property with three names, do we not have to say that God is distinct from this property and thus that his being evinces plurality? For a property is something abstract, something that can be exemplified. But God is not abstract. Rather he is perfectly concrete, and like all things that are concrete, he cannot be exemplified. (If he could be exemplified, it would make sense to say some such thing as this: x exemplifies Godness. But this is nonsense. Thus God is not at all like, say, color. It makes perfect sense to say that a thing exemplifies redness.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Creed

Ever since my interest in Christianity began to grow (I seem now to recall that it began the year my twins were born - 1999) I've found that I cannot join a church. The reason, simply put, is that I know of no church where I'd find myself in complete agreement on all doctrinal matters with other members. Those brave few who've read more than a few of my posts know something of the objections I raise to Christian doctrine, both Catholic and Protestant.

Last night I had a minor epiphany. I realized that I was wrong about this. My lack of agreement should not serve as an impediment to my conversion. There is much in Christianity that I accept. Perhaps that makes me a Christian. Perhaps I should simply pick a church with whose members I am in agreement on a number of fundamental issues, and join it.

What are those issues that I think important? For what should I look in a church? My answer is My Creed. (My Creed is subject to change without prior notification. The author of My Creed does not claim he has certain knowledge of any of its constituent propositions. Rather he claims only that they now seem plausible to him.)

My Creed

The world revealed to the senses is not the whole of the world. The self revealed to the senses is not the whole of the self. The world did not come to be from nothing. Rather it had a cause that stands outside it. The cause is single, not multiple. The cause is God. The self did not come from nothing. It did not come from blind physical processes unwatched and not chosen. Rather the self was made by another and greater self. It was made by God. God wishes that we love both him and one another for eternity. But in our present state this is impossible. We live in a state of spiritual infancy, and our purpose in this life and in the life after is to learn to love perfectly. All are immortal. All will fulfill their purpose. The opportunity for spiritual growth does not end when we die. Rather it persists for so long as we fall short of perfection. Perhaps I will be perfected in this life. Perhaps my perfection will require the life-age of the universe. But no matter how long it takes, it will happen. Christ was perfect love made flesh. He came not to pay a price, but rather to evince love, give hope, and form a body of followers in which love might grow. Scripture is a human record of God's relation to the world of his creation and as such is subject to the very errors that plague all human work. Scripture is not inerrant. Scripture answers in us a felt need for guidance in our moral quest. We know that its ethic of love answers to our most fundamental need. Its sole authority rests in this.

I'd be curious if anyone has a suggestion about a denomination in which someone such as me - someone who believes only My Creed and no more - might be welcome.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Many From One: The Metaphysics of Human Genesis

The debate over the research use of human embryonic stem cells rages. I have little new to say about it. But I would like to correct one nearly ubiquitous mistake. It is that a human being begins to exist when sperm fertilizes ovum. (In what follows, when I speak of sperm, ovum and zygote, I mean the human variety.)

Of course I do not dispute that the fertilized ovum, i.e. the zygote, is alive. Nor do I dispute that it is human. But it is not yet the human being that will come to exist.

How can it be human and not a human being? It is human but not a human being in precisely the sense that a sperm or an ovum is human but not a human being. (For simplicity, consider only the example of a sperm cell.) A sperm is human in the sense that it originates in a human male. It is thus human and not, say, bovine or canine. But of course it not a human being.

Note that the indefinite article 'a' is crucial here. A sperm is human but is not a human. (Of course a human is human. But a thing might be human and not a human.)

What I've said so far is beyond dispute. If you think it false, or do not understand, give it another go. Do not continue on until you understand.

Now begins the metaphysics. I've said that a zygote is human but not a human being, and I've explained what I mean by this. But I've not yet given my reason. The reason takes us into the metaphysics of identity.

When the zygote divides, it gives rise to a pair of new cells. Does the zygote survive its division? If it does, it is either one or the other of the pair of cells to which it gives rise. (It cannot be both, for one thing cannot become two things.) But since the two cells to which it gives rise are exactly similar, we can have no more reason to say that the zygote becomes this one than that it becomes that one. Thus neither of the pair of child cells is the proper successor to the parent zygote cell, i.e. neither is identical to the parent. Conclusion: when the zygote divides, it ceases to exist.

Note that a human zygote is in this regard precisely similar to all cells that undergo division. When an amoeba divides, it ceases to exist. When a bacterium divides, it ceases to exist. Cell division is, in all cases, at once both destructive and generative. The parent cell ceases to exist. The child cells begin to exist.

Now, assume for the sake of reductio ad absurdum that a zygote is already a human being is not a mere precursor thereof. (Reductio ad absurdum is a form of argument in which a certain assumption is show false by the deduction of an absurdity from it). As argued, when the zygote divides, it ceases to exist. Thus when the zygote divides, the human being that by assumption it was ceases to exist. Of course if this were so, we must say at some point in time either at or after zygotic division, a new human being comes to exist, for of course pregnancy does end in the birth of a human being.

This is absurd. Pregnancy does not progress through the creation of one human being, its destruction, and the creation of a new. Rather there is only ever one human being within the womb. Thus the assumption with which be began must be false. It must be false that a zygote is already a human being.

This leaves us with the question of just when a human being does in fact begin to exist. Is it when the zygote divides, or is it after? I suspect that it's not at the time of division but rather some days after. I'll return to the issue in a later post, but do note that the door has been opened for even the most ardent defender of the sanctity of human life to endorse embryonic stem cell research.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God: Addendum

In Infinite Sin, Infinite God I asked the question, Just what is meant when we are said to have an infinite obligation? I considered two possible responses, viz. we have an obligation to do something infinite, and we have an obligation to do a thing perfectly. But I now say that two other answers are possible. (iii) An infinite obligation is an obligation that extends through all future time. (iv) An infinite obligation is an obligation that is infinite in strength.

Let us consider each in turn.

An obligation that extends through all future time is of course infinite in a way. But its infinitude does not necessarily imply that its violation merits an infinite penalty. For any particular violation of that obligation need not itself extend through infinite time. Rather it might occur at a single point in time, and if so, it does not evince the kind of infinity found in the obligation.

What if the violation were never to cease? What if, for example, I were to never love God as I ought? Even if this were so, still the violation would never be infinite in time. It would in a certain sense grow but it would always remain finite. Thus even a violation that never ceases does not for that reason merit an infinite penalty.

Now let us turn to iv. What sense are we to make of talk of an obligation infinite in strength? Only one answer seems possible: an obligation is infinite in strength just if no other possible obligation can take precedence over it. For what can we mean when we say that one obligation is stronger than another than that the one takes precedence over the other? Plausibly our obligations to God are of this sort, for no matter how great is our obligation to one another, our obligation to God is greater still. Let us now ask whether the fact that our obligations to God can never be trumped entails that their violation merits an infinite penalty. Here I begin to loose my way. When we trade in talk of infinite strength for talk of precedence, we seem no longer to have any basis on which to judge just how harshly this or that violation should be treated. Of course we do have a basis on which to say that this violation should be treated more harshly than that, and thus we have a kind of relative penalty scale on which we can order possible violations. But we have no reason to say that a certain violation, considered in isolation, deserves just this penalty and no other. We have no way to fix any point on the scale.

Thus again we find that we have no reason to suppose that the violation of an infinite obligation requires an infinite penalty. A violation of our obligation to God, even though it can never be trumped, might still merit only a finite penalty. (Of course it would merit a greater penalty than a violation of any other sort of obligation, but this alone does not imply that the penalty merited must be infinite.) With this, SMITE collapses.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God

I often hear said that any sin, no matter how minor from our point of view, merits eternal torment, because like all sins it is an infinite sin against an infinite God. (Call this doctrine "SMITE", for "Sin Merits Infinite TormEnt".) A perspicuous statement of this doctrine is found in Jonathan Edwards.

[S]in is heinous enough to deserve eternal punishment, and such a punishment is no more than proportionable to the evil or demerit of sin. If evil of sin be infinite, as the punishment is, then it is manifest that the punishment is no more than proportionable to the sin punished, and is no more than sin deserves. And if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, "The Eternity of Hell Torments" in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

In sum, the view is this. All sin is a violation of our obligation to God. Moreover, all our obligations to God are infinite. Thus violation of any of those obligations is an infinite evil. But an infinite evil deserves an infinite penalty. Thus all sin deserves an infinite penalty.

Let us ask if this view is defensible.

Let us turn first to the notion of an infinite penalty. How are we to understand 'infinite penalty' in this context? Is is a penalty exacted for infinite time; in this context, the kind of infinity meant is eternity. But note that it is a penalty that has not been paid for all past time. Rather it's a penalty that a sinner will begin to pay at some time in the future. But if this is so, the penalty paid will always be finite. After a day, the sinner will have paid only a bit. After a thousand years, much will have been paid. But no matter how far we go into the future, only a finite amount of the infinite penalty will have been paid. We must conclude that it's a logical impossibility to pay the infinite penalty. But if it's impossible to pay the penalty, it seems absurd to say of God that He exacts it from us. Surely we should not say of God that He attempts to bring about a thing that simply cannot occur. The circle cannot be squared. Thus God will not attempt to square it. We cannot pay the infinite penalty. Thus God will not attempt to extract it from us.

What now of the claim that all sin is a violation of our obligation to God? (Edwards does not make this claim explicit, but he does seem to presuppose it.) I do not say that it is false. Instead I say only that I do not understand it. If I fail to discipline my children, I violate the obligation I have to them. But how do I also thereby violate an obligation I have to God? Have I wronged God? Perhaps I wrong God as I wrong a parent if I were his child's teacher and yet failed to teach that child. But this is speculation.

Last let us examine the claim that all our obligations to God are infinite. Take Edwards' example of love. In what sense is my obligation to love God infinite? Two answers seem possible. (i) Perhaps it is an obligation to evince an infinite love of God. However, I do not think that I'm capable of such a thing. I am a finite being, and all that I feel and do is of necessity finite. Thus it's impossible for me to evince an infinite love. (ii) Is the obligation to evince infinite love of God an obligation to evince a perfect love of God? I find it plausible to say that I ought to love God perfectly. But as said before, I cannot love God infinitely, for I can do nothing infinitely. Thus to love God perfectly is not to love Him infinitely.

Indeed what I've said of love can be said of all our obligations to God. They are not infinite obligations. Rather they are obligations to do a thing perfectly. (I suspect that Edwards has confused 'infinite' and 'perfect'. In the case of God, all that He is and does is of course both infinite and perfect. But in our case, though perfection is possible, infinity is not. The perfection appropriate to us qua finite beings is finite; the perfection appropriate to God qua infinite being is infinite.) But once we've said this, we find that we must reject SMITE. Our sins, since not infinite, do not merit eternal torment.

If I were more cynical that I am, I would say that Edwards invented a fallacious little argument for a conclusion he already believed. (If I were more cynical than I am, I'd say he often does this.)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Whither Personal Responsiblity?

A few days ago I had my say about Evangelical Christianity and the American ideal of self-reliance. Last night as I lay in bed, I began to wonder about a certain related ideal, the ideal of personal responsibility. It too is touted by Evangelicals; it too is an American ideal. (You're most likely to find it in the mouth of a Republican, but it is not unique to them.)

Calls for personal responsibility are calls to take personal responsibility for what we do. Thus they are not the really quite trivial claim that we in fact are responsible for what we do. They are rather calls to acknowledge that we are responsible and to act as if we know it.

(Before I continue, let me say this about the 'personal' of 'personal responsibility'. It adds nothing more than emphasis, for of course all responsibility is of necessity personal. The only beings that act are persons - groups act only in the sense that the persons who make them up act. But only those beings who act can be responsible for what they do, and so only those beings who act can take responsibility for what they do. Thus I'll drop the 'personal' from 'personal responsibility' in what follows. I'll say only 'responsibility'.)

What has the call to take responsibility to do with self-reliance? First we must say that they are not one and the same. The fact that ones takes responsibility for what one has done in the past does not imply that one was then self-reliant; one can take responsibility, for instance, for one's lack of self-reliance, for one's reliance not upon oneself but upon others. But surely the two are related in a way. Indeed in the minds of those who think both important, they are inextricably linked. What is the nature of that link? Here I think it helpful to distinguish a past-directed call to take responsibility from a future-directed one. The past-directed call is a call to accept whatever consequence might be associated with one's past mistakes. The future-directed call is a call to take charge of one's life, to make it one's own. How do I at present act in such a way that I might take responsibility for a day to come? Insofar as it in my power, I quite deliberately decide how best to act and invest myself fully in the fulfillment of my plan. But if I do this, I am self-reliant.

Thus we find that a call to take responsibility, if understood as a future-directed call, is one and the same as the call to self-reliance. But if this is so, the Evangelical belief that we ought to take responsibility for what we do is subject to the very same objection that I made in Can a Good Christian be a Good American? Evangelical Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon Christ. Thus it cannot be a religion of responsibility for our future. It is on the contrary a religion of Christ's responsibility for our future.

The Evangelical will of course protest. She will say that, though my conclusion has a kernel of truth in it, that kernel is wrapped in falsehood. The kernel is that through Christ and Christ alone are we able to keep His commands. If left to our own, she will say, we are quite incapable of obedience to the law. But that this is so, she will say, does not imply that we can take no responsibility for our future. For Christ will not come to our aid if we do not ask Him, and if we do not ask we will stand quite justly condemned. Thus there is one thing that we must do. We must ask for Christ's aid. We must admit our weakness, our sinfulness. We must acknowledge Christ's rightful place as our ruler and we must submit to him.

But notice just how weak is this move. We are left with a drastically attenuated type of responsibility. There is only one thing we ought to do, only one thing we can do, and it is to ask for help. If the call to take responsibility is only this, how very thin it is.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Can a Good Christian be a Good American?

Can a good Christian be a good American? (Some cringe when citizens of the U.S. use 'American' to describe themselves and themselves alone. America, they say, includes all of North, Central and South America. With all due respect, they seem not to have considered the possibility that 'American' is ambiguous. It means either an inhabitant of the United States or an inhabitant of the greater continent of which the U.S. is part. I mean the former.)

American Christians, at least those of an Evangelical bent, are likely to say 'Of course a good Christian can be a good American'. Indeed they're likely to say good Christians make the best Americans, that the ideals of Christianity and of Americanism are not only compatible but serve to reinforce one another. (This is no doubt part of what's claimed when Evangelicals say that this is a Christian nation. They mean not only that America was founded on Christian ideals but that those ideals, if followed, make one a good American. Evangelicals seem on the whole quite patriotic, quite nationalistic, for they believe that in the U.S. Christianity fares best.)

I deny this. Good Christians most certainly cannot be good Americans. For consider an ideal at the core of Americanism, the ideal of self-reliance. It is part of what makes us distinctive as a people, and even when we fall short of it we still project it as a ideal. We are the people who do not need help, who do not rely upon help. Indeed we think that help corrupts. It makes us lazy, it makes us dependent. Better to eschew all help even if one fails without it, we say.

Who do we admire most here in the U.S.? The scrappy young boxer from a broken family who fights his way to the top. The child of poverty who, against all odds, manages to get an education and then begins a business that she makes successful through sheer grit. We're all told to be like these, to go out into the world and follow our dream. (Evangelicals often criticize Hollywood for its anti-Christian bent. But Hollywood still pushes the 'follow your dream' message hard. Consistency demands that Evangelicals commend Hollywood for that.) We're not told to sit back and let the dream come to us. We're not told to attach ourselves to another who will realize our dream for us. No, not that. We're told to go out and ourselves realize our dream.

Note just how deeply individualistic is this ideal. It's the individual that is told to go out into the world and make his way there. Whatever success he meets is his alone; whatever failure he suffers is his alone. He owes neither success or failure to anyone or any group outside himself. It is all his and his alone. It is a lonely ideal, an ideal that posits only the individual and a world to be conquered. It has no use for group or for origin. Indeed it is deeply suspicious of talk of such things. On the ideal of self-reliance, talk of group-membership or of origin can easily turn into an excuse not to work, not to better oneself or one's station. Better to put talk of such things to the side and get on with the work at hand.

This ideal of self-reliance is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon another. The other is of course Christ. Whatever strength we have comes from him. Whatever in us is good has him as its source.

Does this mean that we do no work? Of course not. Does this mean that we set not goals? Of course not. Rather it means that we must recognize in all we do that it is not we who achieve some good but rather Christ through us. Self-reliance is a myth. Christ-reliance is the only truth. Pride in the fruits of our own labor is always misplaced. Gratitude to Christ for what he works through us is always required.

Moreover Christianity is a religion in which the group is of fundamental importance. It is a religion that demands we set aside the individualism proper to Americanism and submit ourselves to serve the body of Christ here on Earth, the Christian church. The Christian is at bottom not one set out to conquer the world. He is rather one of many, and his very identity is wrapped up in his place within the Church. He is who is he because of that place.

This seems to me a fundamental incoherence in the Evangelical world-view. I suspect that Evangelical's keep their adherence to the ideals of Americanism and of Christianity separate. They do not allow they to come into contact, for if they did the psychic strain of their inconsistency would force them to give up one or the other. I submit to them that they should consider the two ideals together.

One last point. The incompatibility of the ideals of Christianity and Americanism should lead Evangelicals to rethink their oft-made claim that the United States is a Christian nation. If they mean by this that the ideals that animate the two are fully consistent and indeed serve to reinforce one another (and no doubt this is part of what's meant) they're dead wrong, and if one's fundamental loyalty is to Christ one must work to rid American of the myth of self-reliance.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ad Hominem

I often find that I do not understand charges of ad hominem. (For the novice: ad hominem is a fallacy of a certain sort, i.e. it is a kind of mistake made in the attempt to establish the truth of some conclusion. The phrase 'ad hominem' is from the Latin, and means roughly 'against the man'. Ad hominem, we will find, is a fallacy that illegitimately substitutes a judgment about the character of a man for a judgment about the truth of what he says.) I don't mean that I don't understand what's meant by 'ad hominem'. About that I'm tolerably clear. What I often don't understand is why in debate this or that person thinks his opponent is guilty of ad hominem. I suspect that many charges of ad homimen are misplaced.

In the course of my discussion of ad hominem, I'll explain why I think charges of ad homimen are often misplaced.

First, let us place ad hominem on the fallacy map. Ad hominem is an informal fallacy. It has to do not with the form of an argument but rather with the content of its premises and conclusion. It is, moreover, a fallacy of irrelevance. The premises of an argument guilty of ad hominem are not relevant to its conclusion, i.e. the truth of those premises (if in fact they are true) should in no way contribute to our confidence in the truth of the conclusion. Last ad hominem is a species of genetic fallacy. One who commits ad hominem invites us to reject an opinion for no other reason than that its source is tainted in some way.

Next let us have a definition.

An argument commits the fallacy of ad hominem just if it infers from premises to do solely with the character of a person that that person's views about a certain irrelevant matter are false.

The definition makes quite clear just what ad hominem is. It is a fallacy of irrelevance in which we are to conclude that what a man says is false because he and not his argument has some defect. (Excuse the sexist language. I promise next post to shift to 'she' and 'her'.)

Why take the time to define this particular form of fallacy of irrelevance? Why not simply counsel that when one argues one must be careful never to commit any fallacy of irrelevance? Of course all arguments in which the premises are irrelevant to the conclusion are fallacious. Why not simply say so and leave it at that? The reason is that ad hominem is really quite common. Indeed we humans seem to have a predilection to commit it. We do it again and again. Why is this? Do we perhaps feel a need to believe that those we condemn must be through and through corrupt, so corrupt that even their very words are always false? Do we perhaps feel a need to tear down those we condemn so that we cannot even grant the truth of what they say? These are but guesses. I'll speculate no further. This question is, in all strictness, not a logical one at all; it has nothing to do with logic per se.

If you've ever had a logician explain to you what ad hominem is, likely that logician will not have inserted 'irrelevant' into her definition as I have into mine. Why insert it? Why not leave it out? If we leave it out, we must conclude that ad hominem is not always a fallacy. For we might well encounter an argument in which both premises and conclusion are about the character of a man. Indeed such a argument might take this form:

Issac is quick to anger but slow to forgive. Thus Issac is a hypocrite.

In this little argument, both the premise and the conclusion concern Issac's character. But the premise is quite clearly relevant to the conclusion. (Those who are quick to anger sin against others and thus are in need of their forgiveness. But Issac only very reluctantly gives forgiveness to others.) Thus the argument commits no fallacy. We must conclude then that if we wish to say that ad hominem is in all cases fallacious, the claims made within the premises about a man's character must be irrelevant to the claim made within the conclusion.

Of course instances of ad hominem are likely not as brazen as the definition might lead us to suspect. As with other sorts of fallacy, one who commits ad hominem will likely try to hide his mistake. He will not say any such thing as this: "Issac is a mean son-of-a-bitch. Thus his proof of the Poincare conjecture must be mistaken." Rather one who commits the fallacy of ad hominem is likely to hide his error by misdirection. Often he begins with a discussion of another's views. But he quickly leaves off discussion of those views and begins a rant about the other's faults. In this way we are invited to reject the other's views though we are never explicitly told that his views must be false because he has this or that fault of character. The moral here is that we must take care both when we read the arguments of others and when we construct our own. Ad hominem can be subtle. It can attempt to hide itself. Beware, then, when an argument - whether your own or the argument of another - begins to delve into the life of a man. This is no sure sign that the argument is fallacious. (Recall the little argument about Issac.) But it is a danger sign.

I'll say just a few words about mistakes to avoid when a charge of ad hominem is made. (i) One does not commit ad hominem simply because one says something critical of the character of another. Criticism of character is quite obviously often permissible, indeed sometimes it is required. But one may not infer anything irrelevant about the truth of a person's views simply because one has found fault not with those views but with them. (ii) In cases where one wishes to determine whether a certain person is a genuine authority in some area of inquiry, one may quite legitimately say something about their character. An environmental scientist - a climatologist, say - who radically altered his views after he began employment in the oil industry quite naturally and inevitably comes under suspicion. He looks to have sold out. Now, we cannot say that his views are for that reason false - if we did, that would be ad hominem. But we can for that reason find him no longer a legitimate authority. He has likely compromised his objectivity and thus we can no longer look to him as a source of unbiased, expert opinion.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A New Type of Theodicy: Dembski on Natural Evil

I suspect that some will say that I've been overly harsh with William Dembski. Perhaps so. But even if I have not been overly harsh, let me now be unabashedly enthusiastic. Dembski has authored a quite extraordinary piece in which he attempts to square the claims that (i) natural evil long predates the Fall, and (ii) the existence of natural evil depends upon the Fall. It is here: Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science. The style is crisp and conversational with no sacrifice made to clarity. It is at once both insightful and creative. It should be read by all who take an interest in theodicy. I do hope that it has the effect that it deserves.

Dembski provides a short summary of his view in the passage below:

God does not merely allow personal [i.e. moral] evils . . . to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God also brings about natural evils (e.g., death, predation, parasitism, disease, drought, famines, earthquakes, and hurricanes), and lets them run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself disorders the creation . . .. God disorders the world not merely as a matter of justice (to bring judgment against human sin as required by God’s holiness) but even more significantly as a matter of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin).

In his argument he relies upon the view, held in common by such diverse thinkers as Augustine, Thomas and Calvin, that in the 'moment' of God's creation of the world, He knew all that would happen within it. (I scare-quote 'moment' because it does not signify a moment within time but an, as it were, all-at-once creative act in which the world and all its contents come to be.) God thus knew that humans would fall. He thus knew the necessity that He would have to act so as to reconcile fallen humanity to Himself. The plan to reconcile was two part. He would send Christ so that fallen humanity might be restored to the perfection it enjoyed before the Fall. But He would not do only this. He would also make the world such a place that the 'gravity of sin' would be manifest in the world about us, and in this way humanity would know the necessity that it cleave to Christ for its redemption. How must the world be ordered so that the gravity of sin would be manifest? It must be a world of death and destruction, of failure and pain. It must be a world of injury and disease, of hurricane and earthquake. It must be, in short, a world of great natural evil. The necessity of natural evil is a pedagogical necessity.

Let us be clear. God did not at the time of the Fall so transform a perfect world that it would thereafter make the gravity of sin apparent to us. Rather He set the world up so that from it's very start it would contain those natural evils (or potential for natural evils) that, after the Fall, would make clear to us the gravity of sin and our need for a redeemer. The the taint of the Fall does not enter the world when the Fall occurs. It was there all along.

We do here have a species of what metaphysicians call 'backwards causation'. Events at a certain time - Adam and Eve's fall - bring about a state of affairs at a prior time - a world shot through with natural evil. But they do not do so directly. Rather between the first and the second in the explanatory chain lies God and His desire to make known to us the wages of sin. The explanatory chain is this. Our world is such that, at a certain time and place, humanity will fall. God thus knows this, for God knows all things, now, before and to come. Thus God, since all-good, so ordered the world that humanity might be reconciled to Him. A world able to bring humanity to the realization of a necessity for reconciliation must contain great natural evil. Thus God so ordered the world that it contained great natural evil. Finally, in His wisdom God found it best to allow natural evil free reign even before the time of the Fall.

Note that this explanatory sequence is not a sequence of temporal succession. What comes first in it does not come first in time. Rather it comes first only in the logic of explanation.

So ends my little explication of Dembski's views. In a later post, I'll comment a bit. For now, let me say only this: I am skeptical that a world in which natural evil is given free-reign before the Fall is better than one in which natural evil enters the world only after the Fall. (Also I'm skeptical that Dembski does the views of John Hick justice. Indeed we'll see that Dembski's view, like so many other types of theodicy, likely collapses into a kind of Hickianism.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Uncommon Condescent

Con`de*scent", n. [Cf. Condescend, Descent.] An act of condescension. [Obs.] --Dr. H. More.

The title of my post is a pun on a pun. I hope that you'll forgive me.

A few days ago I began to read William Dembski's Uncommon Descent. I'd like to take a moment to explain why I don't think I'll return.

First, let me say something about the tone of the posts. An anger suffuses them. Anger directed at whom? For what reason? The object of his anger, I assume, is that part of the scientific and academic community that refuses to take his work with any seriousness. He is quite thoroughly marginalized and will likely remain so. (I mean to make no judgment about the justice of this state of affairs. Rather I only mean to report what seems to me to be the case. Has he been treated unfairly? I have no idea.) Indeed the great majority of his peers will not even so much as take him on. Most, I suspect, don't think it worth their time. The few who might feel some temptation to take on the defenders of ID, moreover, fear that their peers would ostracize them if they did so. Thus Dembski and others of his sort labor mostly in scientific obscurity. (Of course they do possess some cultural notoriety. But this is due to the existence of a community of conservative Christians who find ID congenial.)

But even if I'm wrong in my speculations about the cause and object of his anger, I am quite certain of its existence. The anger most often takes the form of sarcasm. His posts are often deeply, darkly sarcastic. He lashes out at those who have denied him a place at the table, and sarcasm is his weapon of choice. This makes the whole of Uncommon Descent seem like one great fit. It's expressed not by cries but by the written word. It's a clever fit. It's a long fit. But a fit it is.

This is the first of my reasons to give up on Uncommon Descent. My second concerns not the tone of what is said there but the content. Dembski has a quite low opinion of those of his scientific peers who reject ID. Indeed he is quite often openly derisive of them. He accuses them of the most simple and obvious fallacies. He accuses them of bad faith; they quite deliberately, Dembski says, cover over the faults of their view. Now, it might well turn out that some form of ID will become the dominant paradigm within origins science. But no matter if this happens or not, I find it highly unlikely that the men and women upon whom Dembski heaps his derision are guilty of the sins, whether intellectual or moral, of which they're accused. They are not stupid and they are not wicked. Perhaps they are wrong, but their mistakes are for the most part honest.

Don't expect me to say anything about the virtues or vices, whether intellectual or moral, of either this or that foe or this or that ally of ID. Don't expect me to say anything of the vices or virtues, whether theoretical or empirical, of either ID or or the Darwinian account of origins. I simply do not know enough to make any judgments of this sort. In this, I am no doubt like the great majority. We are on the outside and will never know enough about the theories or the theoreticians to make any judgment about character of theoretician or content of theory. Rather we who are outside must look for certain marks of genuine scientific authority and make our judgments based upon that and that alone. What are these marks? Has a person been trained by experts in her field? Does she work at a place known to house experts in her field? Has she published in peer-reviewed journals in her field? Does she have the esteem of her peers? Do her opinions cohere with other experts in the field? Is she free of any entanglements that might compromise her objectivity? Most evolutionary biologists meet these criteria and thus we must trust them and what they say. (Trust them absolutely? Of course not. Error both small and great could still easily creep in. The mere fact that a generation of scientists agree on a certain matter is no guarantee that their opinion is true. But that they agree is good reason for those of us on the outside to believe what they say; for those of us on the outside, that the experts say a thing is good though not conclusive reason to believe it.)

Does Dembski meet these criteria to the same degree as they are met by his opponents? No. Thus we have less reason to trust him than we do his opponents. But even if we should have made a mistake in this, we still can say this with certainty: the charges of intellectual shabbiness and moral corruption that Dembski levels at his opponents are very nearly certainly false.
(Dembski does his cause no favor when he makes such charges. He alienates his peers in the scientific community, and he alienates those such as me who have insufficient knowledge of the content of the disputes to form any independent judgments.)